What is wrong with SAARC?
The Nation
June 7, 1995
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation has been in existence for several years, but the level and type of multilateral cooperation in the non-political sphere it was created to achieve has not taken place yet. Why? Does the responsibility for this go to state systems in India and Pakistan, the two key players in the region? If yes, can South Asian cooperation be ensured through any progressive steps at the non-state levels-for instance, via the so-called people-to-people contacts?

For some years, some organizations have been quite active in South Asia for the purpose of creating a regional climate suitable for the promotion of multilateral and bilateral, cultural, economic and scientific cooperation both within and outside the confines of the SAARC. The CASAC, Coalition for Action on South Asian Cooperation is one, led, among others, by former chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies, Ross Masud. The Americans have also been trying to bring retired bureaucrats and generals form India and Pakistan on various platforms.

One German organization, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), is also interested in promoting the same cause. Why has cooperation under SAARC not yet picked up? Will it, if the efforts are made at the non-state level? These and many others issues stalling progress under SAARC were discussed during a round-table talk on the sidelines of the eight SAARC summit in Islamabad in May 2-4, 1995. The talk, participated by leading local journalists, was arranged by the CASAC and FES. It was initiated and moderated by former senator Javed Jabbar, chairman of the South Asian Media Association (SAMA). The head of the Pakistan chapter of the FES was also present.

SAARC has been a failure since its creation in 1985. Like the OIC and NAM, it has proven to be a paper organization only. But the former two are mainly political bodies. The NAM was a bit influential during the Cold War days. It is no more the case. The OIC is as ineffective as unity in the Muslim world. The best comparison with SAARC of any other organization for regional cooperation can be that of the ASEAN. Some decades ago, when this organization was set up, South East Asian countries were not as developed as they are today. And much of this progress took place within the framework of the ASEAN.

But geopolitics of South Asia is altogether different from that of South East Asia. Here we have India, a big country surround by small–a giant state that has never tried to understand the insecurity dilemmas of its small neighbors. That has in fact been the biggest dilemma confronting Indian foreign policy makers. As a result, India has bilateral problems with Bangladesh. It has bilateral problem with Sri Lanka. And this is what mars the fate of SAARC.

Civil society activists who participate in people-to-people activities within the SAARC framework often tend to portray an optimistic picture of the regional body. For instance, Javed Jabbar argued that the SAARC summit had made significant headways in promoting regional cooperation, such as the Framework Agreement on SAARC Preferential Trading Arrangement, and the establishment of South Asia Development Fund. However, as it had been the case before, if the member-states were in the end unable to implement these agreements, their signing was of little significance.

The central issue in the South Asian region, which prevented regional cooperation, was no doubt the strained relations between India and Pakistan. This relationship had to improve if SAARC had to succeed as much as ASEAN. Political leaders of the member-states, especially of India and Pakistan, have to consider regional cooperation seriously. They have to overcome domestic barriers for the purpose. In an information age, media could be an agent of change in the region, provided writers and reporters stopped toeing the officially conflicting lines of the respective state Establishments.

In the end, however, if peace was to be negotiated between India and Pakistan over unresolved issues such as Kashmir, the main parties would be the two countries’ governments and state establishments. The civil society, the media, and people-to-people contacts can only influence governments and state establishments to an extent. The Political leadership will have to come up with the due foresight, vision and will to resolve bilateral conflicts such as Kashmir, and then move the two countries and the entire region fast forward towards credible regionalism process within SAARC.